Writing a political speech isn’t necessarily a very different discipline to writing a business or fundraising speech.
Speech writers of all persuasions use rhetoric to convey their ideas effectively. It’s the foundation of any speech. So while the language of a political speech might sound a little different to the language of a business speech (possibly by focusing more on principles than deliverables), the speechwriting techniques will often be the same…
Every good speech will set out its proposition clearly, engage the listeners, and lead them toward a desired realisation or call to action. They’ll use similar speechwriting devices to engage the audience: Like litany – repeating the same structure for rhythm and effect. Or elements of deductive reasoning – logos – to persuade people that cuts are necessary… cuts will help the economy… the economy will be in safe hands.
Arthur Schlesinger Jr called speechwriting a particularly lowly form of rhetoric. And if that’s true, then business speechwriting probably occupies an even lowlier position. Down there in the gutter.
Political speeches may be concerned with lofty goals like saving public money and spreading accord among its people, but so is business speechwriting. Replace ‘public’ with ‘company’ and there’s no difference. (What else would you expect of a speechwriter from a nation of shopkeepers?)
Why it’s okay for political speeches to sound like business speeches
If business speechwriters are all clued in to the language of political speechwriting, what do political speechwriters take from the world of business?
Not as much as they should.
While traditionally, the art of writing political speeches and other speeches may have been kept at arm’s length, I think it’s time they were reconciled.
Having written both, I think that political speech writing can benefit from some corporate savvy.
What’s the bottom line?
Corporate speeches are as good a showcase for storytelling as any other kind of speech, but there’s always a bottom line looming. Like it or not, the bottom line always brings things back to earth with a bump.
Yes, we are aspirational about this. Yes, we want to achieve that. But this is the bottom line – this is where we’re at. And these are the facts.
The bottom line is your safety net; your Graham Chapman from Monty Python – always on hand to stop things getting too silly. To bring everything back to hard facts and evidence. First deliver your vision, then show it’s practicable, and only then talk about achieving it.
It’s a vital technique in grounding a political speech. To stop it flying away into the realms of aspirational but impractical. You certainly couldn’t get away without delivering on the raw data or the bottom line in the corporate world.
Of course, there may be some very good reasons why you don’t want to be too free and easy with all the facts and figures in your political speech. But we all know the weight and value that facts – even the carefully cultivated ones – can bring to a speech.
So your political speech should tread a fine line between ideology and pragmatism. Between engaging hearts and minds and hitting bottom line targets.
The art of persuasion
A good speech is a persuasive speech. One that extols the value of one course of action over another – and make it seem like the right thing to do.
In business, persuading your audience often comes down to making it worth their while. Maslow’s ever-popular hierarchy of needs tells us that fulfilling your workers’ basic needs isn’t enough. So companies work hard to incentivise employee activity and engagement. Whether you’re talking to staff or customers, whatever you’ve got to say is all about what’s in it for them. Same goes for customers and shareholders.
So when the manager speaks he/she plays a crucial part in cementing buy-in to organisational values with a speech that taps into the underlying benefits for the target audience.
Political speechwriting usually needs to be one or two steps further removed; it may need to talk in broader terms about the condition of people en masse. So you might need to draw upon a different range of persuasive elements to work the room and appeal to the audience’s underlying needs.
The political speechwriter can turn the business leader’s incentive method on its head by appealing to nobler incentives. “Ask not what your country can do for you…” Or they can appeal to broader emotional states: fear and unity are popular ones.
Find ways to persuade your audience by appealing to their emotions.
Writing for your audience
In business, speeches are more overtly dictated by the audience. In many cases, I would suggest to a business speaker that the audience’s interests should their primary inspiration. Otherwise there’s precious little point in speaking to them.
As far as possible, people in business need to speak in ways their audience will relate to. It helps build trust and empathy. As in politics, so in business, the future of your organisation can be decided by how likeable the leader is.
‘Ethos’ broadly describes the character of the speaker. In political terms, it often comes down to verisimilitude. So too in a business context. Business leaders who cannot communicate their ideas credibly, whether that’s at the podium or on the shop floor, won’t get the buy-in they need from staff. Workers will be less engaged and the business will suffer.
To get around this problem, business leaders can afford to vary their approach more than politicians. It may not be as stark as: one tone of voice for one sector of the workforce; another for the shareholders; another for the client base, but a manager is allowed a little more flexibility than a politician. If a politician varies their tone of voice for every audience they’ll come across as insincere. If a business leader does it, they’ll sound more keyed in to the needs of their respective audiences.
So a political speaker can’t be as flexible as a business speaker in varying their approach according to their audience. But there’s another lesson here...
For the business speaker, adopting the right approach and tone of voice for their audience is only half the battle. If there’s nothing truthful or relatable in what they’re saying, it’s all a waste of effort.
We mentioned ethos. And honesty is a key part in establishing ethos. Being truthful about who you are and what you stand for is a very refreshing, compelling way to build trust in your audience, whatever kind of speech you’re making.
Political speech writing from UK Speechwriter
Those are some preliminary thoughts on the lessons political speechwriters can learn from business speechwriters. If you’d like to discuss a project, give me a call on 0115 8284986.